Less than 24 hours after the New York Times reported that the New Yorker’s annual festival would feature an interview with Steve Bannon conducted by New Yorker editor David Remnick, Remnick himself released a statement saying the conversation had been canceled. This followed an uproar on social media and among many of the magazine’s staffers and contributors for what was seen as giving a platform to white nationalism. (The festival offers a small honorarium, as well as expenses, to interviewees.) In his statement explaining his change of heart, Remnick wrote, “There is a better way to do this. Our writers have interviewed Steve Bannon for The New Yorker before, and if the opportunity presents itself I’ll interview him in a more traditionally journalistic setting as we first discussed, and not on stage.”
Responding to the controversy, New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens penned a piece titled, “Now Twitter Edits the New Yorker.” Stephens wrote, “Social media doesn’t just get a voice. Now it wields a veto. What used to be thought of as adult supervision yields—as it already has in Congress and at universities—to the itch of the crowd.” He scolded journalists for failing to understand what he considers part of journalism’s mission: “putting tough questions to influential people, particularly bad people” and expressed dismay at the “irascible (and unappeasable) demands of social media mobs.” Stephens’ column, which also alluded to the days when a staff writer’s public challenge of her editor “would have been a firing offense,” got its own heated reaction on social media.
In the wake of all that, I spoke by phone with Stephens, a #NeverTrump conservative and former columnist for the Wall Street Journal. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how to distinguish a Twitter mob from people simply expressing their opinions, whether anyone is too beyond the pale to interview, and how far journalists should be able to go in criticizing their bosses.
Isaac Chotiner: Do you think that Steve Bannon doesn’t hit the awfulness threshold, or do you think that people shouldn’t be up in arms about this sort of thing, regardless of who the person being interviewed is?
Bret Stephens: I think Steve Bannon is a newsmaker. There are people who meet awfulness thresholds who aren’t newsmakers. Steve Bannon, whether we like it or not, doesn’t belong in that category, and wishing it were so doesn’t make it so. Bannon is the impresario of a style of politics—nationalist, illiberal, in many respects very bigoted—that is globally relevant. And once an invitation was issued to him, I thought there was potentially an interesting journalistic opportunity to put him in front of a hostile audience and ask hard questions and generate news and ideas. And that opportunity has now been lost because of a variety of pressures—most of them from social media—which I don’t think serve the public interest.
Let’s say it was Louis Farrakhan. Or let’s say it was Richard Spencer. What do you think your feeling would be?
I think it’s worth thinking through because those are judgment calls. I’m not sure Richard Spencer has anywhere near the reach or impact of Steve Bannon. And so I think that people reasonably can disagree, but I don’t think he reaches the relevance threshold. Louis Farrakhan strikes me as a has-been and [someone] speaking to a fairly limited audience. I would also wonder whether he met that threshold. But Bannon does, in the way that Vladimir Putin does, or [Iran’s supreme leader] Ali Khamenei does. These aren’t people I like. They are people I detest. I detest Steve Bannon, by the way. But the purpose of journalism isn’t—as Malcolm Gladwell put it—to organize dinner parties.
You wrote a column in 2007 about Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being invited to speak at Columbia University. In the column, you bring up Hitler and write that “[Lionel] Trilling might have said that in hosting and perhaps debating Hitler, Columbia’s faculty and students would not have been ‘confronting’ him, much as they might have gulled themselves into believing they were.” And “Hitler at Columbia would merely have been a man at a podium, offering his ‘ideas’ on this or that, and not the master of a huge terror apparatus bearing down on you. To suggest that such an event amounts to a confrontation, or offers a perspective on reality, is a bit like suggesting that one ‘confronts’ a wild animal by staring at it through its cage at a zoo.” The idea is that it’s a liberal fantasy that hearing from a Hitler or Ahmadinejad will lead to increased understanding, and people who want to destroy you or kill you or change your society can’t be reasoned with. You mentioned Khamenei now, not Ahmadinejad, but do you think Bannon doesn’t fall into this category? What’s the difference?
I think the difference is that citing a column from 11 years ago that says something somewhat different than what I am saying today only indicates that I changed my mind. And I changed my mind for various reasons: maturity, I hope. Reconsideration. And a sense that today, more so than in 2007, the issues of free speech and the free exchange of ideas have to be thought of differently. At the time, I thought Ahmadinejad was a dangerous outlier and that there was less to be gained from inviting him to Columbia than from keeping him away. Now I think about it differently.
Back then, the progressive view was “let’s hear from anyone and everyone.” And there are of course risks to that. It is not as if I am blind to the argument that giving a platform to bigoted and dangerous individuals doesn’t carry risks. But I think—and it’s a conclusion I have come to over these many years—that the risk is probably not as great as the risk of setting ourselves up in thought bubbles or silos that fail to expose us to ideas that, like it or not, we are going to have to grapple with.
I agree a lot of progressives have changed on this, in the opposite direction. The concern now is less that free speech is endangered, but rather that white nationalist or fascist ideas are much more of a threat, and so we have to shun certain dangerous voices.
One of the things that the ascendancy of Trump has done for me is helped clarify—as few other things have—the importance of standing for core liberal values. Ten or 12 years ago, it didn’t seem to me that those values were under threat, at least in mainstream American politics. That is to say that I thought Republicans were basically as committed to free speech as Democrats were, and as committed to other foundational liberal ideas. I am using the word “liberal” in the more old-fashioned sense. Politics took place within narrow parameters. Certain fundamental values of liberal democracy were not at risk.
But now you have a president whose explicit message is illiberal, including on the subject of free speech and the media. And I don’t see how those of us who care about liberalism can usefully stand up to Trump by espousing what amounts to a counter-illiberalism. The right response to a president who wants to trash the First Amendment is to honor the First Amendment. The right response to a president who wants to quash dissenting voices is to hear from dissenting voices.
You write in the piece that “the gradual degradation of editorial authority is another depressing feature of our digital age, as supposedly neutral reporters use social media to opine freely, ferociously and very publicly about whatever they please, not least their own colleagues and employers.” What is the difference between a mob and people speaking out freely, even about their own publication? Why is all of this not free speech and all to the good?
It is free speech, but unfortunately the nature of Twitter is that it turns free speech into a kind of crowd, right? It is not like anyone in 140 or 280 characters is making foundational points. What they are doing is getting themselves retweeted and liked, and if they are unlucky they are getting ratioed. The essence of what is happening on Twitter is not speech so much as the accumulation of numbers. It is not so much an argument so much as 10,000 people angry at you and banging on your digital door. That scares me because it means that you cannot really advance conversation in the ways to which we ought to aspire.
I am not saying that people do not have a right to take to Twitter. But there is a real difference between someone writing a thoughtful letter to David Remnick and saying that I will raise thousands of people on Twitter to say I will unsubscribe unless you submit right away to what it is we want you to do. I think that is simply different.
People could always unsubscribe. Conservatives could complain about something the Nation published on Israel and unsubscribe or not read it. Each of these things is different on the merits. But I am not sure how different it is from the market deciding. If people don’t want to subscribe to a magazine that hosts Steve Bannon, they don’t have to. Hasn’t this always existed?
Yeah, sure, but just as there are differences between representative democracy and rank populism, there are differences between the votes of the market and what we are seeing now, which is, in one case after another, editorial decisions being made by targeted and frequently frenzied campaigns conducted online. We now have technologies that allow you to create the equivalent of crowd politics, which did so much to contribute to early 20th century totalitarianism.
Right, but the ends matter. If these politics are used to cancel New Yorker subscriptions because you or Ross Douthat is speaking at the festival, I think that is stupid and even dangerous, but—
Well, why not, by the way? Say if I were invited to the festival, which I don’t think would ever happen and certainly is not going to happen now.
You really blew your chance.
If people say, “Bret Stephens is beyond the pale because of XYZ,” and then it’s Ross beyond the pale because of his pro-life views. Ask yourself where that takes you and where it takes the New Yorker, because ultimately the purpose of a journalistic enterprise like the New Yorker is to enlarge the horizon of its readers. And if you have a magazine that is constantly succumbing to the prejudices of its readers, or trying to remain within the comfort zone of its readers because of its need to maintain a subscriber base and so on, you might serve one end, which is that you provide readers with a warm bath they want, week in and week out, but on the other hand you are not serving the purpose of good journalism.
I agree this could conceivably go in a dangerous direction. I just think that Steve Bannon is a much more complicated case.
I don’t think Steve Bannon in this context is complicated. I wrote a column back in November in which I denounced the Zionist Organization of America for essentially providing a celebration for Steve Bannon and giving him a stage without any form of challenge. I thought [it] was disgraceful for any Jewish organization to participate in any celebration of a man whose politics strike me as deeply antithetical to the long-term interests of the Jewish people. But what was being promised [by the New Yorker] was a challenging interview on stage from presumably one of the greatest journalists of our time. So we weren’t talking about celebrating Bannon in the way you might celebrate, I don’t know, Jim Carrey or someone. And it’s an ideas festival, right?
One issue here is that it’s the festival, not in the magazine or on the New Yorker Radio Hour. You pay someone for coming, and there is prestige, etc.
As far as I know, Bannon said he was happy to forgo the honorarium, so if the issue was the honorarium, they could have said, “We aren’t going to pay you. How about that?”
Right, but a festival is different. It isn’t considered to be journalism in the same way. But look, I agree to the extent that the biggest problem over the past couple of years has not been giving him a platform so much as covering him and Breitbart poorly. There was a very euphemistic New York Times cover story on Breitbart. There was a ridiculous, fawning interview with him in New York magazine mere weeks ago, which presented him as this bold populist. There are much bigger problems.
And if you are going to get your top guy, a highly accoladed, Pulitzer-winning editor to perform the journalism, there is the expectation you are going to get a good show.
Kathryn Schulz, who is a New Yorker writer, tweeted that she was “appalled” by the decision to have Bannon at the festival, told Remnick as much, and encouraged others to write in. You wrote in your piece, “Not long ago, a public challenge such as Schulz’s would have been a firing offense.” Were you saying she should have been fired, or that mores are changing?
I would say that mores are changing. I am not advocating anyone being fired, least of all Kathryn Schulz, who is a distinguished journalist. But I am astonished that a journalist who believes in what I think are the foundations of our profession would take that view. It would have been a firing offense, I suspect, in the days of Tina Brown or previous editors of the New Yorker, because there used to be expectations about collegiality that no longer apply when every journalist has his or her own platform from which to opine.
When Sarah Jeong came to the Times and there was a controversy about her tweets about white people, you wrote that they were snarky and mean and racist, even though you also said she should not be fired. That is criticizing a colleague.
Yes, but I was also standing up for her and saying she shouldn’t be fired. It was a huge public issue and I wanted to take a stand on the subject.
But it’s still taking a stand and calling out the opinions of a colleague. Which is not a bad thing per se. I think you should have been able to write that she should be fired. And I think we are back to things feeling differently when it’s a tweet rather than in a column. Anyway, I think it’s silly that Times columnists can’t criticize each other by name.
Well, what you are doing is raising interesting questions about a complicated subject, which is the boundaries of collegiality, and the imperatives of speaking freely, and how they intersect and where they are in tension. I think many of these are in some sense judgment calls. I have chosen not to say certain things about the Times or my colleagues because I have a sense there is something called collegiality, and that we should, generally speaking, respect it as a norm, respect that we are, at the Times, playing for the same team, and try to look outside the building and think about the world. And there are occasions when the Times or the New Yorker become the story and there are ways of dealing with that.
You are going to accuse me of speaking in a muddle, but I think the deep truth here is that these things need to be thought of pretty carefully. If I had been Kathryn Schulz, and I had felt the way she does about the Bannon invitation, I probably would have offered my views to Remnick privately. I think that is much more appropriate than not to just tweet this but essentially invite a campaign to pressure Remnick. Maybe I am old-fashioned or prematurely old-fogey, but I found that stunning. He wasn’t offering to celebrate Steve Bannon’s accomplishments. He was offering the opportunity to interrogate him as a journalist. That’s what we are supposed to do, and I was dumbstruck that any journalist doesn’t take that view. We don’t just interview people who cure cancer and help the indigent. We are exposing vice and bad ideas and have the kind of conversations you and I are having now about difficult subjects, and opening up ourselves to criticism.
Would you not have written the Sarah Jeong piece if you had thought she should have been fired?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I hesitate to give you an on-the-record answer when I haven’t digested the thought sufficiently, but that’s a fair question for you to ask.